As rookie coaches head to playoffs, veterans pay price for failure

On a day when three veteran NFL coaches were fired, three rookie coaches prepared for the playoffs. As the three veteran coaches cleared their offices, the three rookie ones were neck-deep in video study, matchups and game plans.

What went wrong for Detroit Lions coach Rod Marinelli, New York Jets coach Eric Mangini and Cleveland Browns coach Romeo Crennel? What went right for the new playoff trio, Miami Dolphins coach Tony Sparano, Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith and Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh?

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The departed did not enjoy quarterback play they could count on, but the trio of new winners did. And the departed featured a roster full of players that plodded more than they raced. These coaches could not get their teams to play fast, smart and instinctive football. Especially play fast. Not let thinking and uncertainty limit their ability to play with speed and with cohesion. And it cost each one.

The bottom-line difference between the coaches who were fired and the rookie ones in the playoffs is the new group excelled in communication, player response and in igniting, across the board, individual sparks in their players.

Many coaches in this league are put off with the idea that they must get players motivated when those players are earning big salaries, have a job to do and are privileged to be a part of the NFL. But the fact is it is a huge part of the NFL head coaching job description, the need to mold and light fires under players and push them to something greater within that surfaces for all to see. Sparano, Smith and Harbaugh in their first NFL season as head coaches mastered this task. Each made it a point of emphasis from their first day on the job, and remained persistent and consistent in it.

For example, in every corner of the Dolphins' locker room after they won the AFC East by beating the Jets on the road, the players kept focusing on Sparano's ability to push them beyond their limits, on his fire and passion for his job, on how he sold them, on how he got them to believe.

Some coaches are simply better at pulling that trick than others.

Sparano, Smith and Harbaugh hit it hard and hit effectively throughout.

AFC wild-card breakdown

The AFC playoff field, and perhaps those teams in the NFC playoff field as well, should be wary of the playoff-tested Colts, a team very capable of making the long march to Super Bowl XLIII, writes Vic Carucci.

"I've never believed in rebuilding, only building," Harbaugh said. "Look at the Patriots. They lost Tom Brady and kept building it, building it this season and had an impressive year that nearly got them in. I am not a big believer in fortune. I believe in providence. Providence in football, in life and in everything else."

It is not lost on Harbaugh that as he moves forward, three of his coaching brethren were fired.

"There are parallels," he said. "Everything we are doing, everybody is doing some of the same in their jobs and working like crazy. Black and white is what people think and sometimes see but it is much more complicated, sometimes more subtle. There is more gray in there than people realize. It's so competitive in this league. And that drives the changes. It's a game. Just a game. It's recreation and exciting and fun. But for some fans, it's their lives. For the people in the game, it is their lives."

Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher told rookies this summer at the league's annual rookie symposium that while all were focusing on their first play, give some thought to their last. And how much it means to give it your all on every play en route to that last one.

That goes for coaches, too.

"At some point, you think about that," Harbaugh said. "All things come to an end for a coach. There is a time in this league where you move on to the next thing in life. But it's all about what you do in the interim and the relationships you build. And you have to do it the right way and help people grow and know they have value. You can't worry about extending as a coach. What do you do as a coach with the time you have?

"I think coaches who survive a long time face down adversity. They understand fighting no matter the circumstances. It's about doing something meaningful with players and getting them to look inside themselves and sometimes find something they didn't even know was there."

NFC wild-card breakdown

The final Sunday of the regular season saw some teams rise to the occasion while others cracked under the pressure. Now that the NFC field is set, Steve Wyche takes a look at the matchups.

The rookie coach has a rookie quarterback, Joe Flacco. Both will help lead the Ravens (11-5) at Miami (11-5) on Sunday. Harbaugh said he did not choose Flacco as the starter over Kyle Boller or Troy Smith. Both were injured before the season and Flacco was the lone healthy QB standing of the three, Harbaugh said. He will not take credit for Flacco proving to be the right quarterback.

But he can in his development.

"Joe is a great competitor," Harbaugh said. "People might not see that right off. He has still waters that run deep."

And Harbaugh -- demonstrative on the sidelines, the same way in his practices and off-field communications -- is far from "still waters."

He added, laughing: "No, no one has ever said that about me to my face."

The Ravens were 5-11 last season. The record is flipped.

"We have healthy respect for Miami," Harbaugh said. "They got better every week. They don't turn it over. All the things you really need to do to win games, they do. When I walked through the door here, I had a bunch of tough, competitive guys who like football and love to play it. And that was a great place to start. We built from there."

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